By Lindsay Vaughn and Goldie Currie
PRINCETON — After pushing for Bureau County to change its policy and elect, rather than appoint, its coroner, Randy Grant (R-Wyanet) is challenging longtime Bureau County Coroner Janice Wamhoff (D-Princeton) for her office.
Janice Wamhoff has served Bureau County as coroner since 1988. Before that time, she had worked two years as a deputy coroner. It’s a difficult job, and one that’s typically under-appreciated and underpaid, but Wamhoff has her reasons for pursuing this career.
“I’ve been on the other side, of having a death in the family,” she said.
Her brother was killed in a motor vehicle crash with his best friend in the late 1960s, and the way the family had to hear about it made it harder for them.
“At that time, there was no coroner, no police, nobody who came and talked to us. It was actually on the radio, and my aunt heard it before we were ever formally told,” she said.
Wamhoff’s brother’s friend’s brother discovered the crash and was the one who arrived at the house to tell the family. Her mother tried to contact the police and the hospital but couldn’t get any information.
“My reason for doing this is to help the families, those that are left behind, to get the facts of who, what, when, where and why as fast as you can get it and as accurately as you can get it to them. There are a lot of things that take time, but just being there initially is a big help to these families,” she said.
All of her decisions as coroner are based on treating every family as she would want to be treated in their place, Wamhoff said. Beyond investigating how a person died, helping the family understand what has happened and start the process of making all the decisions they will need to make is the coroner’s most important role, she said.
Her approach to supporting those left behind is simply to treat them as she would want to be treated. She has to do everything in her power while working together with police, emergency medical technicians and doctors to find out exactly what happened.
The costs are low in her office; Wamhoff said her budget is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the courthouse. The only line item she sometimes exceeds is for autopsies, she said, because the number she’ll need each year is hard to foresee.
Her priorities today and for the next four years are the same as they have been for the past 24 years.
“There’s nothing going to be changing. I am doing my job every day to help the citizens of Bureau County during the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to them, which is losing a loved one. That’s my priority,” she said.
Republican coroner candidate Randy Grant believes it’s time for a change. With 20 years of experience in funeral service, Grant said he is committed to compassion, value and exceptional care.
Grant is a 1991 graduate of Worsham Mortuary College in Chicago. He has owned and operated Grant-Johnson Funeral Homes, Inc. for 14 years.
In February 2010, Grant asked the county board to consider changing the appointed coroner’s position to an elected one. The county board agreed to draw up a referendum that asked voters if the coroner should be elected. In November 2010, voters approved the referendum. With Grant’s initiative, the county will elect its coroner for the first time in 40 years this election season.
If elected, Grant’s priorities for the next four years include establishing a code of ethics in accordance with the state and making budget cuts.
He said cuts can be made by eliminating the coroner’s vehicle, which would save on fuel, insurance and maintenance costs. Grant also would look into removing the current coroner’s phone line at the courthouse. He said he believes the phones have been costing up to a couple thousand dollars a year and, to him, it seems like too high of an expense. Grant said he will use his answering service at his funeral business and company vehicle when responding to a scene if he is coroner.
Grant also will use a set of guidelines to establish a chain of command and proper procedures of right and wrong actions at a death scene or investigation.
“It would bring professionalism back to the office,” he said.
The guidelines also would include expectations for himself and the deputy coroners.
“I think my 20 years of experience in funeral service would help out,” he said. “We already know the chain of command and what to do and where to go and people to contact.”
Grant said the most important thing for a coroner to do when someone dies is to be prompt, show up safely at the scene as soon as possible, make sure the family knows what has happened and what’s going to happen next.
“Not everyone has been in that situation. I just think it’s important to be the most professional you can when you show up,” he said.
Grant said everybody has a road that they have traveled down, and when a family has lost a loved one it’s a big bump in the road.
“If I can shave that bump off just a little bit, I’ve done my job. I can’t take the pain away, but I’ve done my job,” he said.